NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Drug Laws Affect Women Disproportionately

November 18, 1999

Harsher penalties for those convicted of drug-law violations have sent the number of women in prison skyrocketing over the past two decades, according to figures from the Sentencing Project.

According to the criminal justice reform group's new study, "Gender and Justice: Women, Drugs, and Sentencing Policy":

  • The number of women in state and federal prisons rose 573 percent in 17 years -- mostly due to drug convictions.
  • The nation's prisons held 12,300 women in 1980 -- but that number swelled to 82,800 by 1997.
  • The number of women serving time in state prisons on drug charges climbed from 2,400 in 1986 to 36,800 by 1996.
  • Women serving time in state prisons for non-drug offenses rose during the same period from 17,200 to 39,400.

The majority of the 7,000 women doing time in federal prisons in 1996 were there on drug charges.

Sentencing Project researchers point out that women don't commit other, more violent offenses as often as men do. So as the number of drug offenses escalates and sentences become harsher, women are disproportionately affected.

Source: Gary Fields, "Study: More Women Imprisoned for Drugs," USA Today, November 18, 1999.


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